Forty years ago the state introduced the Green Acres program for farmers who couldn't afford the rising property taxes that came with urban sprawl. Farmers enrolled in the program pay a set, lower, amount per acre in property taxes than neighboring residents or businesses.
But last year, without much notice, the Legislature changed the program. It declared that only productive farmland qualifies for the tax break and defined productive as land that is producing a crop. Wetlands or buffer strips do not qualify.
The change followed a report by the state auditor that found some property owners weren't farming at all but taking advantage of the lower taxes.
The change put farmers like Heidi Morlock in a bind.
"This is the beginning of my hazelnut field, as a transition from the wetlands to the hazelnuts and beyond that is 11 acres of hardwoods," she says.
Does she tear out these hardwood trees on her Scott County farm so she can avoid paying more property taxes? Or does she hope the Legislature rescinds or alters changes made to Green Acres?
Morlock dropped out of medical school to take over her family's farm seven years ago. She grows vegetables, chickens and more on 67 acres south of the Twin Cities.
The state will let her grandfather in to the Green Acres program these wetlands and woods, but it will cost her in the long run. Right now her parents own the land. The revised Green Acres program declares that when the farm gets sold or transferred the new owner will have to pay seven years of back taxes on the unproductive land. "It was farmed with corn and soybeans before we moved out here. It would break my heart to see it go back to that because we couldn't afford to keep it as a wetland."
Greg Kramber sees a lot of farmers facing these kinds of decisions in Wright County, just west of Minneapolis. Kramber is the Wright County assessor. Like Scott County, Wright is facing lots of development and a lot of farmers are enrolled in Green Acres.
"A farm operates as a whole. And to sit and dissect these things into productive and non-productive buckets seems like it just shouldn't be done," he says.
One Wright County family transferred 160 acres to their son earlier this year, he says. Roughly 100 of those acres are wooded. They ended up paying three years of back taxes totaling $4,000. They chose not to grandfather the land into Green Acres, Kramber says.
"If that would have happened, if they would have grandfathered in, they would have had to pay back (taxes for) seven years on that, it would have been close to $10,000."
Legislators have heard farmers complaints. This week bills will be introduced to repeal the changes to Green Acres. But they don't expect that to be an easy sell. Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, chairs the tax committee. Green Acres was not designed to preserve wetlands, but farm lands.
"It's morphed into something bigger than that. But it was never the legislative intent. The thing that you need to remember when you lower somebody's property taxes artificially like that with a program, you end up raising everybody else's property taxes in the jurisdiction."
Bakk would rather see a new program, one that would help farmers maintain wetlands and buffers, but not in a way that causes other residents' property taxes to rise.
Back in Scott County, Heidi Morlock tromps into a snow drift at least two feet deep in her wetland.
"It's obvious all this snow in the spring is going to melt and it won't be going down any stream and it will stay here in the wetland and then slowly make its way to the surrounding soil," she says
On her farm there is no such thing as unproductive land, she says.